Daily Archives: April 16, 2012

Debating SDN, OpenFlow, and Cisco as a Software Company

Greg Ferro writes exceptionally well, is technologically knowledgeable, provides incisive commentary, and invariably makes cogent arguments over at EtherealMind.  Having met him, I can also report that he’s a great guy. So, it is with some surprise that I find myself responding critically to his latest blog post on OpenFlow and SDN.

Let’s start with that particular conjunction of terms. Despite occasional suggestions to the contrary, SDN and OpenFlow are not inseparable or interchangeable. OpenFlow is a protocol, a mechanism that allows a server, known in SDN parlance as a controller, to interact with and program flow tables (for packet forwarding) on switches. It facilitates the separation of the control plane from the data plane in some SDN networks.

But OpenFlow is not SDN, which can be achieved with or without OpenFlow.  In fact, Nicira Networks recently announced two SDN customer deployments of its Network Virtualization Platform (NVP) — at DreamHost and at Rackspace, respectively — and you won’t find mention of OpenFlow in either press release, though OpenStack and its Quantum networking project receive prominent billing. (I’ll be writing more about the Nicira deployments soon.)

A Protocol in the Big Picture 

My point is not to diminish or disparage OpenFlow, which I think can and will be used gainfully in a number of SDN deployments. My point is that we have to be clear that the bigger picture of SDN is not interchangeable with the lower-level functionality of OpenFlow.

In that respect, Ferro is absolutely correct when he says that software-defined networking, and specifically SDN controller and application software, are “where the money is.” He conflates it with OpenFlow — which may or may not be involved, as we already have established — but his larger point is valid.  SDN, at the controller and above, is where all the big changes to the networking model, and to the industry itself, will occur.

Ferro also likely is correct in his assertion that OpenFlow, in and of itself, will  not enable “a choice of using low cost network equipment instead of the expensive networking equipment that we use today. “ In the near term, at least, I don’t see major prospects for change on that front as long as backward compatibility, interoperability with a bulging bag of networking protocols, and the agendas of the networking old guard are at play.

Cisco as Software Company

However, I think Ferro is wrong when he says that the market-leading vendors in switching and routing, including Cisco and Juniper, are software companies. Before you jump down my throat, presuming that’s what you intend to do, allow me to explain.

As Ferro says, Cisco and Juniper, among others, have placed increasing emphasis on the software features and functionality of their products. I have no objection there. But Ferro pushes his argument too far and suggests that the “networking business today is mostly a software business.”  It’s definitely heading in that direction, but Cisco, for one, isn’t there yet and probably won’t be for some time.  The key word, by the way, is “business.”

Cisco is developing more software these days, and it is placing more emphasis on software features and functionality, but what it overwhelmingly markets and sells to its customers are switches, routers, and other hardware appliances. Yes, those devices contain software, but Cisco sells them as hardware boxes, with box-oriented pricing and box-oriented channel programs, just as it has always done. Nitpickers will note that Cisco also has collaboration and video software, which it actually sells like software, but that remains an exception to the rule.

Talks Like a Hardware Company, Walks Like a Hardware Company

For the most part, in its interactions with its customers and the marketplace in general, Cisco still thinks and acts like a hardware vendor, software proliferation notwithstanding. It might have more software than ever in its products, but Cisco is in the hardware business.

In that respect, Cisco faces the same fundamental challenge that server vendors such as HP, Dell, and — yes — Cisco confront as they address a market that will be radically transformed by the rise of cloud services and ODM-hardware-buying cloud service providers. Can it think, figuratively and literally, outside the box? Just because Cisco develops more software than it did before doesn’t mean the answer is yes, nor does it signify that Cisco has transformed itself into a software vendor.

Let’s look, for example, at Cisco’s approach to SDN. Does anybody really believe that Cisco, with its ongoing attachment to ASIC-based hardware differentiation, will move toward a software-based delivery model that places the primary value on server-based controller software rather than on switches and routers? It’s just not going to happen, because  it’s not what Cisco does or how it operates.

Missing the Signs 

And that bring us to my next objection.  In arguing that Cisco and others have followed the market and provided the software their customers want, Ferro writes the following:

“Billion dollar companies don’t usually miss the obvious and have moved to enhance their software to provide customer value.”

Where to begin? Well, billion-dollar companies frequently have missed the obvious and gotten it horribly wrong, often when at least some individuals within the companies in question knew that their employer was getting it horribly wrong.  That’s partly because past and present successes can sow the seeds of future failure. As in Clayton M. Christensen’s classic book The Innovator’s Dilemma, industry leaders can have their vision blinkered by past successes, which prevent them from detecting disruptive innovations. In other cases, former market leaders get complacent or fail to acknowledge the seriousness of a competitive threat until it is too late.

The list of billion-dollar technology companies that have missed the obvious and failed spectacularly, sometimes disappearing into oblivion, is too long to enumerate here, but some  names spring readily to mind. Right at the top (or bottom) of our list of industry ignominy, we find Nortel Networks. Once a company valued at nearly $400 billion, Nortel exists today only in thoroughly digested pieces that were masticated by other companies.

Is Cisco Decline Inevitable?

Today, we see a similarly disconcerting situation unfolding at Research In Motion (RIM), where many within the company saw the threat posed by Apple and by the emerging BYOD phenomenon but failed to do anything about it. Going further back into the annals of computing history, we can adduce examples such as Novell, Digital Equipment Corporation, as well as the raft of other minicomputer vendors who perished from the planet after the rise of the PC and client-sever computing. Some employees within those companies might even have foreseen their firms’ dark fates, but the organizations in which they toiled were unable to rescue themselves.

They were all huge successes, billion-dollar companies, but, in the face of radical shifts in industry and market dynamics, they couldn’t change who and what they were.  The industry graveyard is full of the carcasses of company’s that were once enormously successful.

Am I saying this is what will happen to Cisco in an era of software-defined networking? No, I’m not prepared to make that bet. Cisco should be able to adapt and adjust better than the aforementioned companies were able to do, but it’s not a given. Just because Cisco is dominant in the networking industry today doesn’t mean that it will be dominant forever. As the old investment disclaimer goes, past performance does not guarantee future results. What’s more, Cisco has shown a fallibility of late that was not nearly as apparent in its boom years more than a decade ago.

Early Days, Promising Future

Finally, I’m not sure that Ferro is correct when he says Open Network Foundation’s (ONF) board members and its biggest service providers, including Google, will achieve CapEx but not OpEx savings with SDN. We really don’t know whether these companies are deriving OpEx savings because they’re keeping what they do with their operations and infrastructure highly confidential. Suffice it to say, they see compelling reasons to move away from buying their networking gear from the industry’s leading vendors, and they see similarly compelling reasons to embrace SDN.

Ferro ends his piece with two statements, the first of which I agree with wholeheartedly:

“That is the future of Software Defined Networking – better, dynamic, flexible and business focussed networking. But probably not much cheaper in the long run.”

As for that last statement, I believe there is insufficient evidence on which to render a verdict. As we’ve noted before, these are early days for SDN.